Chimu: wealth and prestige

There were wars of plunder and landgrabs in Peru well before the Spaniards brought destruction to its inhabitants.

mask art 88 298 (photo credit: )
mask art 88 298
(photo credit: )
There were wars of plunder and landgrabs in Peru well before the Spaniards brought destruction to its inhabitants. The last local conquerers were the Incas, but their hold on the rich Chimu empire lasted less than a century before the arrival of the conquistadores. Chimu: Imperial Riches from the Desert of Peru, a huge exhibition at the Israel Museum, gives one a very good idea of the artistic talents of a remarkable but ill-fated Indian people. Mounted by curator Yvonne Fleitman with the aid of textile historian Alisa Baginski and designer Rivka Myers, it tells the story of how the Chimu Empire expanded across 1,300 kilometers - from Tumbes near Ecuador to Lima in the central coast - and took control of the dry desert coast of Peru between 900 CE-1476 CE. I am indebted to the show's excellent texts. This is the first comprehensive exhibition ever devoted to Chimu culture. Remarkably enough, its more than 200 artworks are from the museum's rich Precolumbian collection, most of them displayed for the first time. Chan Chan, the Chimu capital, was the largest city ever built in Precolumbian America and the largest adobe city in the world. Its ruins cover 20 square kilometers of sun-dried mud-brick walls. The city held colossal palaces with royal burial grounds, pyramids, open market areas, gardens, reservoirs, cemeteries, residences for minor nobility and for officials and thousands of cane dwellings for traders, laborers and state-supported artists and artisans. Canals and aqueducts brought fresh water through the desert to irrigate agricultural fields supporting some 60,000 people. Until now, no temples or religious sites have been found. Instead, class-ridden Chimu society strongly emphasized aristocratic status, wealth and prestige. The Chimu acquired economic power through agriculture, fishing, herding and centralized control over the production of consumer goods. Their fleets of sail-powered balsa rafts ran a successful maritime trade network. The Chimu could fight but the expansion of the empire from the beginning of the 12th century was achieved mainly by diplomatic and economic means. When the Incas conquered Chan Chan in 1476, they took the city's most skilled artisans to their own capital in Cuzco and adopted many Chimu ideas and artistic traditions. In 1535, the Spaniards sacked Chan Chan and its burial platforms were looted; modern grave robbers further despoiled the area. In spite of this, Chan Chan remains a remarkable example of desert architecture, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986. The show also includes the art of the neighboring Lambayeque and Chancay peoples, who were conquered by the Chimus, and a rare collection of 60 objects from an aristocrat's tomb in one of Chan Chan's royal compounds. Chan Chan was dominated by 10 enormous rectangular royal compounds, later called ciudadelas (citadels) by the Spanish. These combined palaces and administrative centers served successive kings and later became their mausoleums. The largest was Gran Chimu, with 900 rooms measuring a total of 400 by 700 meters (or several modern city blocks). The architectural configuration of the ciudadelas, with their imposing nine-meter-high, two-meter-thick adobe walls, had only a single well-guarded entrance to the entire palace. Its long corridors led through an entry court decorated with elegant adobe reliefs in patterns of otters, birds and mythological themes into U-shaped administrative offices called audiencias, which in turn controlled access to vast storerooms. The central part of the ciudadela had courtyards and residences, but its most important feature was the burial platform for the deceased king, filled with offerings that were amassed before and after the ruler's death. Finally, there was an area with a walk-in well and living quarters for servants, but this could only be reached by skirting the state offices and storerooms along the outside of the ciudadela. If the ciudadelas represented the political character of the Chimu, with their strong emphasis on secular hierarchy and obsession with the accumulation of wealth, the city of Chan Chan as a whole typified the Imperial Chimu style of art and architecture. Although goods were imported from all over the kingdom - from the conquered Lambayeque and Chancay cultures, and from the southernmost Chincha-Ica - the main source of luxury objects and everyday utensils was the unique network of crafts workshops in Chan Chan. Some 9,000 artists and artisans in barrios outside the ciudadelas were provided with their materials and maintained by the state so they could create the sumptuous textiles, featherwork, ceramics, gold and silver artworks and Spondylus oyster jewelry so valued by the elite of Chimu society. The noblemen of Chimu covered themselves in its most prized materials. An oral record documented by Fray Antonio de la Calancha in 1638 posits the link between precious metals and the nobility. According to this account, the Sun sent gold, silver and copper eggs to create humanity: the gold egg produced the lords, their women came from the silver eggs and commoners emerged from the copper one. Just as the exclusive ciudadelas separated the aristocracy from the majority of the population, the personal adornment of the nobles gave material expression to this ideology of separation. Talk about class distinction! Because the audiencias had niches in which objects were displayed before finding their way to the storerooms or burial platforms, some scholars have compared the Chimu ciudadelas to museums and the elaborate design of this show attempts to reinforce this concept. THE CHIMU nobility operated on a grand scale and art production became the focus of the expansive kingdom and elite appetites in general. The royal compounds of Chan Chan are among the largest in the Americas, and scholars have even called them "museums" for their dedication to amassing, displaying and preserving objects, assumed to include luxury art works. The artistic portrayal of wealth and prestige was achieved by depicting nobles in elaborate crescent-shaped headdresses, tunics, earspools, featherwork, jewelry and other status symbols. Standardization and repetitive compositions with frontal figures representing the ruling elite, as well as maritime motifs, birds and felines were the main stylistic features of Chimu art. The combined wealth of patterns on textiles, metalwork and architectural friezes created a sense of abundance. The quantities, techniques, materials, iconography and composition conveyed a clear message: to accumulate was noble. In Europe and now in the United States, collecting expensive art to place in expensive homes reflects the same message. This message can also be discerned in the kingdom's "split inheritance" method of succession. The principal heir received the title - that is, power and status - but no material inheritance, and had to establish his own royal compound. The other descendants were administrators of the deceased king's property and continued to live in an annex built near the existing ciudadela, where they retained some political and economic functions. This kind of government ensured that the empire would continue to expand as the new ruler, who had control of the army but little wealth, strove to enrich his new kingdom. The system also prevented political unrest, since the other members of the royal family had their own inheritance. The contents of a Chan Chan aristocrat's tomb on view comprises a group of royal silver vessels and remnants and imprints of Chimu textiles. It includes vessels typical of the Chimu culture: keros beakers, lidded bottles, double-spout and bridge bottles, bowls and spoons, some of them used in the ceremony for the serving of chicha, a drink made from fermented maize. Keros originated in the Wari and Tiwanaco cultures (ca. 600 - 1000) and remained popular into the Colonial period. The double-spout and bridge bottle, a popular shape in both the Lambayeque (750-1375) and Chimu cultures, demonstrates the continuity of the North Coast traditions. One bottle of this type found in the tomb has a stylized fox head, variations of which were common in the Lambayeque culture as attendants of the Sican God. All of these vessels were produced in pairs, each one composed of a larger and a smaller vessel, as symbols of duality and reciprocity, fundamental principles of Andean belief. Sometimes these differences of size were also expressed in the motifs of their ornamentation. Two bottles on display have mature pelicans on the bridge of the large bottle and pelican chicks on the bridge of its smaller companion. The techniques employed in the production of these vessels involved the hammering of separate sheets of silver on carved wood molds, as well as soldering. Great care was taken to remove the hammering marks from the surface of the vessels. Most of the vessels were found with remnants of the Chimu textiles in which they had been wrapped prior to their interment. The numerous depictions of Spondylus oysters in precious metals, textiles and clay throughout this exhibition stress its great importance in the ritual and economic life of the Chimu. Scholars believe that representations made in costly mediums such as gold, silver or tapestries were owned by those who actually controlled the import of the oysters, either the Fonga Sigde official or the Chimu King himself. The worship of the oyster also extended to the later Inca culture, where the valuable mollusk was called Mullu - nourishment of the gods. In pre-Columbian Andean cultures, textiles were not simply viewed as functional or decorative items. Valued along with Spondylus oysters as the greatest of treasures, they also had profound symbolic and ritual significance. Believed to be sacred objects, political gifts and more, they indicated the wearer's status and role in society, with particular fibers and designs reserved for distinct categories of individuals. Moreover, textiles retained their importance even after their owner's death; nobles were buried in their most elaborate garments, and valuable cloth and accessories were placed in their burial chambers. Textiles enjoyed the status accorded to gold and diamonds in the Old World, and those involved in creating them also shared the aura of prestige that surrounded fabrics. The Andean weavers were masters of nearly every method of textile weaving, featherwork and decoration known today, and they created some of the finest textiles produced in ancient times. The materials they used were cotton (Gossypium barbadense) from the valleys near the coast, fibers from animals of the camelid family (the llama, alpaca, vicu a and guanaco) and feathers from birds of the tropical jungles on the eastern slopes of the Andes. A broad spectrum of life was depicted on textiles: the nobility and its military achievements; the harvesting, manufacture and trade of luxury goods; the fertility of the land; and the legendary arrival of the founders of the Chimu dynasty. They bear witness to the commercial and cultural relations between the peoples living along the coast of Peru. The brilliant plumage of America's extraordinary birds was incorporated into unusual, eye-catching attire for key figures in Chimu society. Colorful feathers were applied or sewn onto wall textiles that adorned palaces and temples, as well as headdresses, ear ornaments, pectorals, capes, tunics and shields for rulers, priests, warriors and officials. Parrot and Muscovy duck feathers from the coast, and the plumage of the great curassow, egret, flamingo, cormorant, tanager and various macaws and parrots from the Amazon added splendor to the clothes of these important figures and enhanced their prestige. Blackware is the name given to pottery that turns black not because of paints or slips but as the result of the firing process. This method, which changes the red clay to black pottery, is called reduction firing. Whereas most vessels of this type are more grayish, the finest ones are black and they were burnished to achieve a polished effect. Only a small percentage of the Chimu vessels were oxidation fired, which gives them a reddish hue. Chimu potters produced clay vessels on a large scale with the aid of press molds. Clay was pressed into mold "negatives" to create the two halves of the vessel. Most of them are stirrup-spout bottles known from earlier periods on the North Coast of Peru. The shape of the spout is effective in the desert climate, since it prevents hot air from entering the bottle and significantly reduces the evaporation of the liquid it contains. Chimu bottles often have tiny modeled monkeys, birds or lugs at the juncture of the handle and spout. Identical versions of these vessels were made in precious metals for the elite, with the mass-produced ceramic models being intended for the use of commoners. THE LAMBAYEQUE culture (750-1375 CE), once called Sican ("house of the moon") evolved on the north of Peru's coast. The enormous archaeological complex of Batan Grande at the northern edge of the Lambayeque valley has more than 50 sites. The royal burials discovered in the 1950s contained more than 200 objects made of gold and silver. The wealth and splendor of the Lambayeque rulers can be seen in these magnificent masks, which may have been used during funerary rituals. The geometric and zoomorphic dangles added bright and glittering details. A frequent motif on Lambayeque masks and clay vessels is a broad frontal face with comma-shaped eyes and a straight nose with flaring nostrils. This face, which appears in other objects from the culture, is that of the Sican deity or of their legendary ruler, Naymlap. A well-known legend recorded by Miguel Cabello de Balboa in 1586 tells of Naymlap, who was said to have come by balsa raft with his wife Ceterny and 40 officials to the Lambayeque valley, where he established a royal lineage that was thought to have ruled the region until the Chimu conquest in the 14th century. On the central coast of Peru, some 17 kilometers south of the outskirts of Lima, lie the adobe ruins of the sacred city of Pachacamac. Established in 600, it was a religious center and pilgrimage site at the time of the Wari Empire. The expansion of the Chimu Empire brought the Chimu as far as Pachacamac, but they did not conquer the city. It continued to function independently, and as late as the 16th century boasted the most renowned oracle in Peru. The Incas changed the site's ancient name of Ychma to Pachacamac, the name of the earth deity that was worshiped there. The walls of the temples were covered with brightly colored depictions of plants and animals, and objects of all kinds were brought as offerings to Pachacamac and other gods in the Andean pantheon. Only the elite of the priesthood were allowed to enter Pachacamac's chamber, while the high priests spoke in his name from an adjoining room. Things were not much different in our Israelite temple, though decorations were out. Don't miss this fascinating exhibition.